From the sublime to the absurd

Rodin thinkerPhysical phenomena produced at seances are regarded by many as the pinnacle of mediumship. To be able to produce the spirit form of someone who has died, capable of being seen and recognised, and to walk and talk to the assembled witnesses, is the goal of many who sit regularly in home circles. They hold out the hope of emulating the achievements of famous mediums of the past who are credited with these extraordinary powers and in providing incontrovertible evidence for an afterlife.


Some, like David Thompson (about whom I have written several times on this Blog), are happy to take their mediumistic abilities on the road while they are – to put it kindly – still a work in progress. Because they are not developed to the extent most knowledgeable Spiritualists would expect, their seances are judged by some sitters to be no more than performances that can be explained without needing to involve the use of paranormal powers.


As I explained in my last Blog, and have said before, sitters attending the same David Thompson seance often emerge with widely differing points of view about its genuineness. In the end, it usually comes down to belief – or their need to believe – rather than any real, tangible evidence that is provided.


So, I’m going to examine what’s going on at the British-born medium’s physical seances from a totally different angle. To do so, I must start with the premise that David is, as he claims, a totally genuine medium who risks his life every time he conducts his seances. Let us for the time being forget about the burden of proof that we usually regard as so important – and which is usually sadly lacking at his seances – and focus on what has to occur in the spirit world to make these performances happen.


First, of course, his spirit team – William Charles Cadwell, Timothy and May seem to be the main collaborators – have to be satisfied that their medium is protected from harm and that the conditions are harmonious.


That requires cooperation from their earthly associates: the medium, his seance organiser and the hosts of the event. Between them, they make sure the room in which the proceedings take place is pitch black. They ensure everyone is searched before entering the room, so that no objects that could emit light are smuggled into the room.

When all that is done, the medium’s hands are secured with plastic ties to the arms of a chair and other ties are put through the buttonholes of the cardigan he usually wears. He is also gagged with a thin piece of material. Once suitably trussed up, the lights are put out and the expectant sitters wait for evidence that spirit entities are present.


Before long, William, Timothy and May not only speak but apparently wander around the room demonstrating their physical existence while the medium is apparently tied up.


Now, to do this must take an enormous about of teamwork behind the scenes in the spirit world. Large amounts of ectoplasm have to be produced, mostly from the medium’s body, in order to enable the spirits to walk around the room, touch some of the sitters, place a hand on the head on a few individuals, dance or stamp their feet and even play a harmonica. Impressive! Except, of course, that we don’t get to see these marvellous manifestations because they only “appear” in the dark.



But, for the sake of argument, I’m giving David Thompson the benefit of the doubt and accepting that everything he produces is 100 per cent genuine. If so, that still raises serious questions about the spirit team who accompany him around the world to give these sought-after performances. For example:


1. Why go to all the trouble of producing ectoplasm to allow spirits to materialise if we cannot see them? Thompson will argue that although they cannot be seen, they can be felt – or to be more precise, they can touch the sitters. As far as I am aware, sitters are not invited to conduct full body searches on the materialisations. But, if they cannot manifest in even a red light, why doesn’t he just confine himself to trance mediumship and allow the communicators to speak through him?


2. Why go to the trouble of producing ectoplasm just to cloak mostly famous dead people, when the majority of those attending Thompson’s seances are hoping to hear from their own loved ones?


3. Why is it that Louis Armstrong, famous trumpeter and singer, can entertain the sitters vocally and on a harmonica for several minutes, but most sitters fail to receive any evidence of a personal nature from their family and friends?


4. Why is it that the spirits of famous Spiritualists and mediums, including Gordon Higginson, Maurice Barbanell and even Emma Hardinge Britten, apparently assist Thompson’s spirit team by making fairly regular appearances, but offer nothing in the way of evidence that they are who they claim to be? And yet, when they were promoting Spiritualism on the earth plane, they all appreciated the importance of using mediumship to comfort the bereaved with incontrovertible evidence.


Maurice Barbanell, for example, often took newly-bereaved individuals to seances with gifted mediums, including direct voice medium Estelle Roberts. He never identified them. They weren’t asked to produce photo ID, as you are before a Thompson seance, nor were they searched and asked to remove jewellery, but they often received dramatic evidence. I cannot believe Barbanell would participate as a communicator at a Thompson seance, in the way that is claimed. He would have stood aside and asked that someone in need of after-life proof would be given the opportunity to receive it from a loved one.


And David Fontana, a former president of the Society for Psychical Research, who apparently recognised me at the Thompson seance I attended, knew better than most the importance of communicating information that is beyond the knowledge of the medium, as anyone who has read his Is There An Afterlife: a comprehensive overview of the evidence will know. Yet he expressed surprise at seeing me at the seance – didn’t the spirit team tell the spirit participants who was attending? – and slapped me on the shoulder, telling me he had been helping me with the book I was writing.


I don’t believe for one moment that Fontana, if he really had gone to all the trouble to materialise – a feat that takes considerable effort, apparently – would squander the opportunity. He would have used it to provide me or anyone else present with evidence that would need checking and verifying by others.


5. Why does Thompsons spirit team choreograph each seance in the same, predictable way – just as the famous Davenport Brothers did with their vaudeville act in the early days of Spiritualism? They end with a large bang as Thompson and the chair in which he sits are apparently lifted into the centre of the circle. And when the lights go up, his cardigan is shown to be back-to-front although he is still tied to his chair. Surely, if Thompson’s spirit team are capable of such feats of levitation and dematerialisation, they could be a little more imaginative and try some new tricks?


Better still, why don’t they advise Thompson to stop touring with what is little more than a repetitive variety show and return to his home circle in order to develop his mediumship to the point where such absurdities are thrown out and sitters can actually see the spirits they are talking to and real evidence is provided?


Wouldn’t it be great if the majority of communicators who materialised were the loved ones on the sitters, not celebrities – like Quentin Crisp – whose involvement appears to depend solely on the fact that on earth their voices were easily recognisable? And a bonus for Thompson, if his mediumship developed to that point, would be that there would be no need for him to be trussed up like a turkey, because sitters would judge him on what they could see and hear, rather than on trusting that he is not wandering around the darkened seance room.


Mediumship is all about evidence and in my view any reasonable person reviewing the conditions under which David Thompson’s seances are held, and the results that are produced, must conclude that evidence is the one element that is in short supply. However much one accepts the reality of a spirit world and the abilities of mediums to communicate with it, one should always apply logic to what is experienced.


For some reason, when the lights are turned out at physical seances, logic – for many sitters – seems to disappear, too. The golden rule should be: if it doesn’t make sense, reject it. I would urge people attending his seances in future to adopt the pose of Auguste  Rodin’s famous statue, “The Thinker”, and let the light of logic penetrate the darkness that shrouds Thompson’s performances, and see them for what they are.

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